For four years in the 90’s I served as Kitchen Manager for the Dinner Program for Homeless Women, a non-profit dedicated to providing a fresh, hot dinner as well as multiple services designed to help those who wanted to help themselves get off the street and begin to construct a different life.
It was an amazing experience. As KM, my job was to take food donated by the local DC Food Bank, offerings from the USDA and others, and create a restaurant quality meal for roughly 65 women five nights a week.
Our goal was to build the dinners in the kitchen, plate them, and individually serve each woman as if they were in a restaurant. To achieve this we had a rotating schedule of 20 different volunteer groups. Students, lawyers, retired people, church groups, a gay and lesbian group, judges, teachers, etc. What was great for me each night was I got a chance to talk with this diverse cross-section of people representing DC and I had such an insight into the neighborhoods, politics and ways of DC life.
One day, back when I was a waiter Phyllis Richman, then the food critic for the Washington Post, came in to review the food for the Hotel Washington. Since I never took the job of being a waiter seriously I didn’t listen to the Chef’s description for his food that day so when Phyllis came in guess who got her! When she asked what was in the dish I pulled a list of various ingredients out of my ass, made it sound gourmet, and took her order. Thank God that food reviewers know they are going to have one bad experience at a restaurant so they come three times. I was the bad experience.
Fast forward a few years and one day here comes Phyllis strolling into my kitchen asking if she could help. She was a devoted volunteer the entire time I was there. One day I told her about the time I waited on her and she thought that was the best. Phyllis, thanks. You were a good friend and a selfless volunteer.
On the flip side, there were other things that happened as a result of working with the homeless. The “companions” of the women, men, would hover outside the program and have their “friends” sneak food out, which was not allowed. One time, this guy burst in, effed up on drugs and was making noise. At that time I was the only male employee so I went up to him, explained the rules, and asked him to leave. His response was to put a blade to my throat and he kept asking me if he should use it. I politely replied, “no thank you” and after a few tense moments he put the knife away and left.
On this eve of Thanksgiving I wanted to say to those who may want to volunteer their time to help these people who have been cast aside from daily life to please do so….just NOT on Thanksgiving and Christmas only. All you are doing is making yourself feel better. You are not helping those in need and you crowd the kitchens for one day. Like one day of service is gonna change the world.
Go to a kitchen on a Tuesday night, in the middle of November when it’s cold and rainy and ask what you can do. Then come back the following week or month like Phyllis did. Then, you’ll get a sense of what service is and how it benefits the people you serve as well as you.
Happy Thanksgiving everyone!